Liberalism: A Counter-History


Liberal has been a dirty word in US politics for some time. President Barack Obama can supply convincing answers to the two preposterous charges about his identity that he has faced recently. One, that he is not really an American, was dismissed by producing his birth certificate. The other, that he is a socialist, is more difficult. It could be exploded by declaring that he is self-evidently liberal in his political convictions. But we can be fairly confident that he will not be using the L-word, even though it claims a political pedigree stretching back to the founding fathers. George Washington himself, that unillusioned soldier and great patriot, extolled “the benefits of a wise and liberal Government” and advocated “a liberal system of policy”. There was not only political principle but political expediency in proclaiming oneself motivated by liberal ideas in that era. The fact that the American Revolution was made in terms of this political prospectus helps explain its ultimate success. There were simply too many Britons who felt that the colonists actually had the better of the argument – they were the better liberals. For British Whigs, too, looked back reverently on canons of government that extolled liberty in thought, speech, religion, government and trade alike. It was part of the heritage of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Indeed, for some more incendiary spirits on both sides of the Atlantic, the Good Old Cause of republican virtue was at stake. Little wonder, then, that the history of liberalism has often taken this Anglo-American tradition as its great exemplar.

more from Peter Clarke at the FT here.